The Banner Saga, as developed by Stoic Studios, is a Scandinavian and Norse inspired tactical role-playing game that uses different character perspectives to enhance a very story-driven narrative.
Players will take the role of several characters, but the brunt of the first-person perspective is made up by Rook, a human character whose primary goal is to protect his daughter, Alette.
Humans live alongside the Varl, a giant humanoid race with large antler-like horns on their heads. The Banner Saga introduces us to both races, who are fleeing the ominous armor-clad Dredge, a legendary race of monstrous beasts with the seeming intent of moving in-land and killing off everyone else. Naturally, the story isn’t as clear cut, but Stoic do a great job simplifying what could become a somewhat convoluted and overloaded world full of impossible looking creatures and sleazy oddballs.
This is certainly more of a narrative-driven RPG, but there is much to be taken from the turn-based approach. Certainly, it isn’t the most technically difficult of systems catering to a more casual crowd. Your primary engagement is that of destroying armor and depleting strength. Each character has a specific armor and strength rating. The higher the armor the more difficult it is to reduce the strength and the higher the strength the more damage a character can inflict. It’s very much as simple as that with the slight caveat being that a character has a willpower number, which increases the amount of damage you can output.
Ultimately, it’s a system that isn’t devised to shine. Instead it compliments the better parts of the game, those being the story and artwork. The biggest gripe I had with the fighting system is that much of it depends on not killing characters. This might seem counter-intuitive to a story about blood-thirsty vikings and giants, but in The Banner Saga it’s better to leave a character on very low health so they can’t deal much damage. Otherwise, because of the turn-based system, the high damage enemy characters get to move earlier which can oftentimes be devastating, particularly on the hardest setting.
Where the gameplay doesn’t produce wonders the artwork is a splendid collage of snowy peaks and mountaintops. There is a distinct early Disney hand-drawn style to The Banner Saga that hearkens back to to the days when Disney was less smooth and curvy and almost expressionist in its spikes and edges. The game is a wonderful experiment in style though and understands that art correlates to the story you need to tell which in this case is one of destruction, angst and desperation.
Perhaps the defining exercise that the game attempts is that of character-driven dialogue that exists at unexpected moments while you’re moving from city to city. Being pushed around due to the imminent threat of the Dredge, you have to make choices that affect the destinies of most of the entourage that you collect along the way. Some might seem innocuous, like picking up the occasional straggler who’s desperate for food and water. Some might seem excruciatingly ominous such as having to make immediate and deadly decisions for an entire city. The thread that defines all decisions is that something is almost always going to happen. Lots of games position themselves around the catchphrase of ‘player-choice’ and ‘character outcomes’ but The Banner Saga takes a leaf out of its somewhat long-lost spiritual television cousin, Game of Thrones, and kills characters off without remorse, without explanation. It’s brutal but logical given the existent world as it stands.
The Banner Saga thrives in its chaos and especially when the player examines the social constructs and hierarchies. As the game’s history dictates, the Varl and humans were very much antagonistic towards one another before this mutual threat in the Dredge forced them to come together and fight for their survival. Yet, much like our own reality, stigmatisation, stereotyping and discrimination still exist, bubbling beneath the surface. It takes one wrong move, one word and suddenly the apparent peace decides to crack ever so slightly and dissipate. It’s an outward thinking experience in that it posits that there almost needs to be a mutual disdain in order for society to operate functionally. Maybe it’s the question of what would happen without the Dredge that makes The Banner Saga such an intriguing proposition and something that I certainly hope Stoic examine at a much later date.
What The Banner Saga evidently does say is that family is vital and forging relationships integral to the longevity of everyone, whether fictional or not. Much of the game is determined by the links you forge, the people you value and the actions you take to protect your own. The concept is certainly nothing new, but it’s spun in delightful fashion and universal themes are important regardless of cliches or not.
The Banner Saga is an exciting debut outing from Stoic Studio. It manages to convey a sense of real desperation that not many games manage to achieve and looks to involve the player from minute one. The artwork is sublime and showcases a talented team who understand the parameters of artwork and not just hand-drawn for the sake of it. In a sunless world full of snow, sleet and rain it’s remarkable that The Banner Saga remains one of the most quintessentially pretty games that I’ve had the pleasure of playing.